An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff: “I Knew If I Failed, It Would Hold Women Back”2018-07-31T11:07:43+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Ruth Nemzoff

“I Knew If I Failed, It Would Hold Women Back”

Interviewed by Eliana Padwa, January 2018

RN: My name is Ruth Nemzoff and I became involved with the women’s movement. I remember the date because I was nine months pregnant. It was 1970 in June. And I saw a sign saying – Consciousness Raising Groups Beginning. The reason I knew about consciousness raising groups is that the December before, I had been babysitting for my sister’s two children, 18 months and four and I had a 9 month old and was quite sick from my pregnancy. A babysitter, a High School kid I had hired, walked into my house and said, “You need to read this.” She handed me The Feminine Mystique.

So when I saw a sign, I joined a consciousness-raising group in Boston, which lasted a year. What I remember most about it was that first meeting where we went around and described who we were married to and each one began with “I’m married to an Irish Prince,” “a Jewish Prince,” “a Southern Prince.” And so it went, all the way around the room and then we realized that it wasn’t just one ethnicity. It was all men were raised to think they needed to be served. And expected it!

A year later I moved to New Hampshire. And I answered a teeny little ad in the newspaper, which was actually placed by two women who were factory workers saying they wanted to start consciousness raising groups. I think this is incredibly important, because it’s fashionable to say that the movement was all about rich white women. And it was not…at least in the Hinterlands. So it was actually a city in New Hampshire. There were people who were not rich who were involved.

We Went to a Meeting and the Four of Us Began a Consciousness Raising Group

Anyway I asked another doctor’s wife if she would join me. We went to a meeting and the four of us began a consciousness-raising group. Subsequent to that we started a whole bunch of consciousness raising groups. We started a counselling service. We started a day care. We really worked hard to bring women to…, preparing them for a future which would be different from the past. And helping them perhaps look forward to a future career. Even though many of them had not completed college yet.

EP: Just to recap, what year was that?

RN: That was ’71.

EP: And can you tell me a little more about starting your day care and everything – like how did you do that?

RN: Well, we just got a group of people together and started it. It wasn’t actually a day care, it was a nursery school and that was actually in the Jewish community; a counseling service was in the secular community.

And now the women got together – many of them have been in the consciousness raising group – and said, “Let’s do it.” And we just met and did it. So that was sort of the story of everything we did. About a year later, I believe, we marched down on Susan B Anthony Day, August 26 and we marched down the street. I don’t think we got permits because I don’t think we knew about permits. We were just very naive and we just said, “We’re going to figure it out.”

EP: What did you march for?

RN: Women’s rights. Celebrating that we had the vote.

EP: And in that day did women still talk about the vote? It’s like ..was it something to still be celebrated?

RN: Not really but it was a chance to make a statement.

EP: For most of you was feminism [something you were] just discovering then?

RN: Yes absolutely.

EP: So do you see yourselves as part of a larger women’s movement?

RN: Some of us did and some of us didn’t. At that time I remember there were a lot of people active in their churches, but we decided not to use the name NOW because that was too controversial in New Hampshire. So we just said it had a name of our group, something like Women United or something like that.

EP: And…what happened to women from that – like how long did the group last as a united front?

RN: It lasted about a year or two. And then women went on and some of them got jobs or they went back to school and they sort of went on their own individual paths.

There was a Lot of Change in Those Couple of Years

EP: So it’s like there was a lot of change in those couple of years. Do you think it was all [because of] the organization?

RN: Partly, but then one of the legislators, Carol Pierce from Laconia, had a weekend in one of the churches and we all went up to that. Many of us went and that sort of linked us with other groups [in the] state and then many of us would work on say family planning or career issues or all different types of issues.

EP: How did your family feel about that?

RN: Well, they were not thrilled. I had two children at the time. And you know, I think in many ways…my father was a feminist in the sense that he was the principal of the school and I know one of his teachers told me she told him this was a time when women were not allowed to work when they were pregnant. She told him she was pregnant and he said…do you feel OK? She said, “Yes,” and that was the end of it. She continued teaching. I know it was over by ‘74 because that’s when I was asked to run for the legislature.

EP: Who asked you?

RN: The assistant minority leader and the current representative from my district who was about to run for Senate and I thought they asked me because I was active in the community both on issues of on a professional level with the issues of disability. And I’d been active in the women’s movement.

But as I was campaigning I learned that the big issue was [they thought] whether I was married to the guy named Berman who was a doctor, not a guy named Berman who was the real estate agent. And I could have gotten very rough and upset about this, but instead I decided this wasn’t about me.

This was about getting elected so I could change laws for the better. I got the legislation to agree to provide scholarships for what was then called displaced homemakers. Those were women who married for less than 20 years and who had stayed at home and then [their] husbands divorced them.

This Was About Getting Elected to Change Laws for the Better

And that was scholarships to the University of New Hampshire so that they could support their families now that their husbands left. I’m also proud of opening adoption records for women. I believe that was the first attempt in the nation to do this and I’d used my status as a legislator to talk with all the various members of the triangle and agencies about the different viewpoints. Then came [up] with a compromise which today is very old fashioned.

EP: To be clear about this – what do you mean by open adoption records?

RN: Well at that time when you set your child for adoption, the record was closed. The child could never find you and you could never find the child. And I was the first woman in the legislature to have a child in a regular session. And so I think that’s why the quote “Unwed Birth Mothers” – they called themselves “Birth Mothers United” – came to me. And they said, “They told us we’d never think of these kids again and we think of them everyday,” and my heart went out to them.

So I organized all the groups to get together. The kids, the parents, the adoptive parents and the agencies and we came up with a compromise which, as I said, now a days would be considered very retro. It was very pioneering where both the parents and the child could put a note in the record. That only covered a small percentage of adoptions. But it was a beginning and I feel great with how it has truly altered adoptions.

EP: How has adoption law progressed since then?

RN: Well now you could have all sorts of kinds of adoptions. You can have a secret adoption, you can have adoption where you actually get yearly pictures, you could get visitation rights – it’s a contract between two people.

EP: And you began all of that?

RN: I had a small part. Yes.

EP: What is your most major accomplishment?

RN: I think that was a pretty big one certainly. Certainly, I think getting those scholarships was big. Although that died when the state ran out of money or had less money. I feel also we were able to declare – this I worked on with other people – I was not the sponsor of legislation to declare rape in marriage. Not. Acceptable. So big deal about that.

We Ran the First Conference on the “Feminization of Poverty”

We managed to protect – at that time – various health things for women. We ran the first statewide conference on the Feminization of Poverty. And from that we were able to change a lot of laws like the one about pensions: women not being eligible for [their] husband’s pensions.

EP: So all these accomplishments were while you were in the legislature?

RN: Yes.

EP: How impressive. And do you think of them as all being part of the women’s movement?

RN: Absolutely – unequivocally.

EP: And how did your experience with the movement then affect your later life?

RN: It affected the way I brought up my children. I hope I gave my daughters a sense, and my son a sense of the person, of every person they were dating and the need to respect them as individuals and, as my mother used to say, “Remember he’s someone’s darling.” And I tried to bring my children up that way. I think on a professional level I try to bring them up to think of their lives as having three arenas – a volunteer arena, a work arena and a family and friendship arena – a personal life.

Ultimately to Bring About Change, You Have to Be Willing to Compromise

EP: That’s great. Any advice for future members of a women’s movement? Anything you want to add?

RN: Yes. Listen as well as protest. And that ultimately – while initially I was very strident and I think that had a place, because when you’re bringing about change you need to really make it clear what you want to change – but ultimately to bring about the change you must compromise, you must work with others.

And by the way I was the first woman on the board of a bank in New Hampshire and I was the first woman in some industrial – some agency that gave money to industries for public-private partnerships. And I had to work very, very hard because those were not my forte’s – financial documents and so forth. So I had to really work hard to make sure that my contribution was a good one, because I understood that if I failed it would hold women back. So I felt a tremendous responsibility to succeed.

EP: How did you come to arenas like banking in the first place if it’s not your forte?

RN: I think it was in part because I was a woman and they needed a woman and I was in the legislature and I was clearly smart enough. And I had, you know, had some successes in my professional life also, which involved budgeting. I was working with an agency that was creating jobs for kids who have disabilities and we had a budget. You know that I had to know something about budgets.

EP: And do you have anything about your past [you’d change] if you could redo it?

RN: Oh my goodness. Don’t we all?

I feel great about my life, you know. Sure there are a million things that would change everything. I wish life had been easier.  But life is like that.